Helen McLaughlin: Curiosity and the Creative Habit

A creative habit is no different, really, from any other kind of habit. You aim to move your thoughts from the dead end of resistance to the freeway of flow; your actions from voluntary to involuntary; your output from sparse, maybe staccato, to prolific. You tick off each day you complete your daily practice until, one day, you forget to tick—not because you forgot to practice, but because the habit has stuck (finally). It’s just what you do now. Auto-pilot has kicked in. Those small, individual actions, taken each day? They accumulate.

Helen McLaughlin | a year of creative habits

But what’s different about a creative habit—different from, say, the habit of flossing your teeth every night before bed, or the habit of getting yourself onto your yoga mat every morning before coffee—is that it works better when it’s hinged to a growth habit. It’s more fulfilling when there’s an objective beyond just the simple act of executing a task every single day.

A year into your habit, you lift your head from your work table and you wonder, Now what? What do you do when you find yourself working your creative habit without fail...but also, without that special spark? The thing that hooks more than your rote mind—your spirit’s hook? The feeling that daily creating is more than a to-do list item—it’s a step toward something that will expand you in a significant way?

As a curiosity coach, my job is to help folks dream bigger than they’ve ever dreamed and take smaller steps than they’ve ever taken—all while teaching them how to be more curious in all areas of life, even (and especially) in those areas where curiosity has never lived before. Together, we get really good at asking better questions and coming up with more interesting answers. Time and time again, I’ve witnessed a client’s perspective transform (radically!) once she discovers her inner-child eyes and ways of seeing. Questioning with a spirit of innocence and an eagerness for discovery usually reveals possibilities we’d have never considered before.

Curiosity, then. It’s the antidote to a practice gone stale. To a creator disconnected from her creation.

Helen McLaughlin | a year of creative habits

Where do you start? I’ve got a few suggestions. Herewith are three tiny steps you can take in order to invite more curiosity into your creative habit.

1. Make a habit of observing everything. Start by spending three minutes upon waking, studying the ceiling above your bed. Notice all there is to notice about it. Pour the cream into your coffee and watch what happens with full presence. Trace with your eyes the edges of the clouds outside the kitchen window. When you move through the world, act as if your job is to collect evidence. Everything is important—that faded sticker stuck to the light pole, the feather floating across the surface of a puddle, the tannin graffiti on the sidewalks in your neighborhood. Examine shadows for secret messages. Study people for clues as to what they do for a living or how they spend their leisure time.

2. Make a habit of questioning everything, including those things you find yourself regarding as facts. Make a habit of noting the places where you’re quick to think of something as set in stone. As automatic. As just-the-way-it’s-done. That right there is a gold mine for curiosity and creative growth. You can paint using paints and a paintbrush, but you can also paint using the lukewarm remains of your second cup of coffee and a few interesting twigs you gathered from your yard when you walked the dog last night. What would it be like to draw or embroider with the lights out? How is your creative life inextricably linked to the fact of your motherhood—so much so that it’s time to make art out of motherhood, residency-style? Entertain even those questions that feel a bit ridiculous to ask. More broadly, get comfortable asking, How can I reinvent this process, top to bottom? Consider every imaginable answer to the same single question. As you develop this skill, remember: Your job isn’t to locate the ‘correct’ answer. There is no correct answer.

3. Make a habit of playing with all those variables you’ve unearthed through observation and questioning. Frame a series of daily creative endeavors as experiments. Frame them as practice. Frame them as data collection. Take your habits of observing and questioning and set up a (literal or metaphorical) place to roam through the new landscape they’ve created for you. A no-expectations sketchbook you refer to as ‘the playground’; a logbook where you chart information and draw conclusions that appear nonsensical to everyone but you; a hashtag you employ to corral a thing you’re collecting for some as-yet-unknown purpose.

Follow these tips in earnest and your creative habit will become a thing infused with discovery and delight. There is so much more for you to discover beyond your ability to commit to a regular artistic practice. Dream of experiencing daily wonder and take the tiniest step toward it; you’ll find that it’s within your ability to create that, too.

Helen McLaughlin | a year of creative habits

Helen McLaughlin is a writer and coach, living the nomadic life. She helps smart, motivated life- explorers to leverage their curiosity, discover what exists for them beyond their default future, and achieve their Big Thing. When she's not listening or asking questions, she's writing about her travel, drinking cup after cup of milky tea, and exploring parts of the country she never thought she'd visit. For tips on becoming and staying curious, being an everyday adventurer, and navigating the world with more wonder, subscribe to her Monday newsletter at Weekly Findings. You can also find her on Instagram and Twitter.